Imagining a Better Democratic Populism

Instead of offering free college tuition, liberals might try valuing and reinvesting in other paths to success and prosperity.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

As Donald Trump extends the war in Afghanistan, fails to repair infrastructure, and joins congressional Republicans in pushing tax cuts that would mostly benefit the upper classes, the columnist Damon Linker believes that the Democratic Party has an opportunity to win over voters by giving them “a genuine populist option” in years ahead. “What would a more populist Democratic Party look like?” he writes at The Week. “It would embed its bold proposals for cradle-to-grave universal health care, free college tuition at public universities, and ambitious infrastructure projects in a galvanizing story of American citizenship and patriotism, sacrifice, and civic duty.”

There may be merit to much of what he suggests.

But “free college tuition at public universities,” or pouring more public dollars into a good consumed largely by the more affluent half of the population, is not nearly populist enough. Here’s what a Democrat could say (not exactly what I would say, but what a responsible Democrat could say) if he or she wanted to win over a diverse spectrum of populist voters.

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My fellow Americans—and especially you lovely people in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, and Florida—I am about to anger some elites.

The United States boasts the best public universities in the world. No young person should be turned away because they were born into a family without enough money for tuition; nor should getting a degree consign a person to decades of crippling debt. For the sake of fairness, class mobility, and the ideal of equality of opportunity, I believe generous financial aid should be available to all needy students for whom a four-year degree is the best way to achieve the American dream.

But I also know America is overwhelmingly led by people with college degrees and white collar backgrounds––people who overvalue their own path to success and rig the system against others who’d thrive under a different approach. To them I say, a four-year degree shouldn’t be the only way for a young person to achieve the American dream.

Our elites are too often blind to the value of education that is received away from college, whether through apprenticeships or vocational schools or on-the-job training. They don’t always understand that there are lots of blue-collar jobs that are more fulfilling, better paying, and more in demand than lots of white-collar jobs. And they are blind to the wisdom in cultural enclaves where a young person is not considered “culturally competent” until knowing how to perform CPR, help a stranger change a flat, or work alongside people from different social classes without taking offense when their etiquette is different than the etiquette at UCLA or Berkeley.

So rather than promising free tuition, like Bernie Sanders, I have a more inclusive proposal: No matter your race or class or gender, you should be able to afford a degree from a public university without crippling debt if that path best maximizes your potential; and we should all value the important work being done at universities.

But I want to invest as heavily in ambitious, hard-working young people who appreciate that carpenters, day-care workers, sous chefs, masseuses, and plumbers do jobs every bit as important as accountants, marketers, lawyers, and IT staff, and who’ve concluded they can best flourish and contribute to society with an education they acquire outside of college. I don’t want anyone getting a four-year degree just because that’s the only way to receive government help, or because folks with college degrees have rigged the system so that having a credential like theirs is the only way to get ahead in America.

I want to stop robbing people of their comparative advantage.

The future I want to see begins with redoubling America’s efforts at civic education in high school. Everyone with a high-school diploma should have learned all the tools they need to meaningfully participate as citizens in America’s government-by-the-people. In fact, adults who want to study American civics now should have that opportunity.

Next, for everyone who earns their diploma or GED, I propose financial aid for college or for an alternative investment in education that will help them toward any career that they choose, so long as they demonstrate that they’re making an informed decision. Yes, we’ll need to be vigilant about fraudsters eager to get a piece of that money without offering valuable knowledge in return. But the problem will be no greater than under the status quo, when so much of the money that flows to public universities is squandered on administrative bloat and luxurious campus amenities.

Finally, so that those who pursue routes other than four-year colleges are treated more fairly, I propose legal reforms to eliminate obstacles like professional-licensing requirements that amount to no more than credentialism, and a shift away from insisting on a bachelor’s degree for jobs that shouldn’t require one.

My hope is that those changes will contribute to an overdue shift in culture that Mike Rowe has written about eloquently, as in this short essay he published last year:

Back in 2009, 12 million people were out of work. Most Americans assumed that could be fixed with 12 million new jobs. Thus, “job creation” became headline news. But then, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics quietly announced that companies were struggling to fill 2.1 million skilled positions. That statistic generated a lot of questions. How could so many good jobs go unfilled when so many people were out of work? Why weren’t people lining up for these opportunities? Why weren’t apprenticeship programs exploding with eager applicants?

...Now, eight years later, unemployment is down, interest rates are under control, and inflation is in check. But the overall labor participation rate is very low, and the skills gap is wider than ever. In fact, the latest numbers are out, and they are astonishing. According to the Department of Labor, America now has 5.6 million job openings.

Forget your politics for a moment, and consider the enormity of what’s happening here. Millions of people who have stopped looking for work are ignoring 5.6 million genuine opportunities. That’s not a polemic, or a judgment, or an opinion. It’s a fact. And so is this: most of those 5.6 million opportunities don’t require a diploma – they require require a skill.

Unfortunately, the skilled trades are no longer aspirational in these United States. In a society that’s convinced a four-year degree is the best path for the most people, a whole category of good jobs have been relegated to some sort of “vocational consolation prize.” Is it any wonder we have 1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loans? Is it really a surprise that vocational education has pretty much evaporated from high schools?

...the skills gap doesn’t seem all that mysterious – it seems like a reflection of what we value. Five and half million unfilled jobs is clearly a terrible drag on the economy and a sad commentary of what many people consider to be a “good job,” but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for anyone willing to learn a trade and apply themselves. As long as Americans remain addicted to affordable electricity, smooth roads, indoor plumbing and climate control, the opportunities in the skilled trades will never go away. They’ll never be outsourced. And those properly trained will always have the opportunity to expand their trade into a small business.

As a developer, Donald Trump earned a reputation for stiffing the skilled tradespeople who worked on his projects. As president, he has stiffed their sons and daughters.

For years, many Democrats failed them too. But I am offering a better approach. I am urging a new emphasis on social equality among Americans from different educational backgrounds, and policies that will get the U.S. closer than it’s ever been to equality of opportunity by giving a hand up not just to the academically gifted who opt to attend college, but to every young person who wants to learn and work hard.